Schlagwort-Archiv: imagination

“We have to try and construct a better world…”

The movement called Zapatismo has a loaded symbolic significance in the context of global social movements. Somehow, this (largely unsuccessful) movement of indigenous people and failed Marxist revolutionaries in Mexico has inspired many an activist around the world (Khasnabish 2010). This is not, because the movement was so awfully effective or because their goals were so absolutely universal. I believe the reason is, that they captured what many felt needed to be done – to fight inequality and injustice through collective practices of the self.  Some argue, that in their approach new political spaces emerge and a new political culture is practiced (Dellacioppa 2009).

By Orianomada - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Orianomada – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The example is worth considering because it gives some indication of the complexities that lie in resisting. In way, the Zapatista movement playfully enacts, what postmodern theory so elegantly disguises in bloomy language. In the Zapatista movement we see what it means to use techniques of the body in order to induce change. We learn how appropriation is at once a struggle and transformative for both sides. And we may learn about the limits of the strategies.

Let’s consider techniques of the body. The Zapatistas have been called a leaderless movement – but nor for lack of leadership. In fact, a person called “Subcommandante Marcos”, is widely considered to be a significant face of the movement. But it is a face behind a mask and his (her?) real identity was long unknown. Subcommandante Marcos is the symbolic representation of leadership, of the voice of the Zaptistas and it has long since become irrelevant to find out more about the person. Marcos is a constructed person with features – such as the mask – that make sure he (she?) could be anyone. Indeed, this is a reflection of a central idea of the movement – that all struggles for justice are related and that the individuals behind them are merely the diverse representations of these struggles. In hiding the face and creating anonymity, the road to identification for many different actors is opened.

Let’s consider appropriation. The Zaptista movement of the 199oies emerged out of an encounter between indigenous people and (failed) Marxist revolutionaries. Two worlds of ideas came together and merged in an unexpected way to form not so much an ideology as more an ongoing process of re-appropriation. Furthermore, new issues were taken up and appropriated in the process, which were dominant in neither indigenous societies nor capitalism and its Marxist critique. Khasnabish shows this in relation to the participation of women (Khasnabish 2010: 74 ff.). The process of reappropriation did not just allow dominant ideas to mingle, it made room for new ideas.

Most striking to me is the how this came about. It begins with a simple (?) redefinition of the self:

“It fell to the lowest citizens of this country to raise their heads, with dignity. [...] We cannot let ourselves be treated that way, and we have to try and construct a better world [...] This is what we want. [...] We have dignity, patriotism and we are demonstrating it.” (Subcommandante Marcos 2002 “Testimonies of the First Day”)

The Zapatistas decided to have dignity at the beginning of the struggle, they redefined themselves as acting subjects. They gained dignity by claiming it. It reminds me of a discussion on the 1989 revolution in East Germany a couple of years ago.

Plauen Oct. 30th, 1989

Plauen Oct. 30th, 1989

A participant asked one of the then-activists why they had suddenly begun to demonstrate, what had changed? And the activist said, that nothing had really changed, they had simply not been afraid anymore. She didn’t really know why the fear was gone, but it was and that changed everything. Should it be that easy? Maybe not. But it is worth debating, in how far the understanding of the self impacts the ability to act and if we cannot find ways in which this has had real life consequences.

In “Power and Imagination” I have argued that this, in fact is a very good appropriation of what (intransitive) power looks like in reality. But not calling it power, we are obscuring the importance. And, I believe, we are understating the limits of power. because this example also shows us clearly what these are. Clearly, the Zapatistas have not destroyed global capitalism nor has the East German revolution quite lead to the world people imagined. By any such measure these movements – just like Occupy, Podemos and so many others – remain unsuccessful. But should movements (and reconstructed selfs) be judged by how far they got? Maybe, power of this kind not ‘succeed’ in reaching ends (Arendt would certainly say so). Maybe the true “success” of these movements is not in the goals but in the change it enables within people. The sense of belonging and self-efficacy it creates. Maybe we should be looking for the places where these experiences resurface – as urban gardening initiatives, girls in schools in the Mexican jungle, new businesses, migration and the political imagination of new movements – which is where Khasnabish finds it.

This is the slightly revised version of a post prepared for the seminar blog “From subjects to cyborgs”.

The work of the imagination

Last week I re-read two texts for my class From Subjects to Cyborgs, Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large and Jean-Francois Bayart’s Global Subjects. Both may be read as attempts at grasping the ways in which the production of subjectivity takes place in the global age. Bayart talks about the practices of appropriation (p. 209) at work. They are a paradox, in that they affirm and deny the techniques of domination. These practices often find, according

to Bayart, a realization in objects, i.e. merchandise, or spaces such as malls. Appadurai is quoted by Bayart as an example of an inherently optimistic view of the ways subjectivity is produced under conditions of globalization (p. 215). Modernity at Large is part of a debate that, indeed, was not primarily concerned with the darker aspects of globalization, made an effort to rehabilitate the concept of globalization as something that was more than mere increase of global commodity flows and financial interdependence. In chapter 9 of this essay collection Appadurai focuses on the ways in which local subjects are produced and produce locality, i.e. neighbourhoods. This production of locality underlies a similar paradox as Bayart’s practices of appropriation – neighbourhoods are context-providing as well as context-generative. They are produced by the practices of the subject.

Life in the minds of children by archanN CC-BY from Wikimedia Commons

Life in the minds of children by archanN CC-BY from Wikimedia Commons

A key role – and this goes for both texts – is played by something that Appadurai calls the “work of the imagination” (198). Appadurai details this further in an earlier chapter of his book. He introduces the work of the imagination as “a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity” (3) which in the past decades has become “a collective, social fact” (5). What does he mean by that? The ability to imagine is no longer just present in arts and myths, imagining is not merely a solitary and extraordinary activity but a prevalent and essential social skill. The modern world relies on imagination to reproduce itself – as the reality of the world is socially constructed. At the same time the relationship between ritualized and imaginative activities has become much more dynamic. The projective nature of imagination introduces a plurality of imagined worlds into the everyday life of ordinary people. The parallel existence of these multiple worlds is amplified by mass media and provokes resistance, irony, selectivity, and, in general, agency (7).

“The imagination is today a staging ground for action and not only escape.” (7)

Applying this argument to Bayart’s analysis provides an interesting perspective. Appropriation than appears as a creative activity in which the techniques of domination are translated into local and individual techniques of the body. Merchandise acquires meaning, places are created and maintained. In all these cases imagination is a collective, sometimes even social activity (211). This is why I have argued, imagination as a social skill has some stabilizing and some dynamic potential. In the end, the active, conscious use of the imagination may infer radical change while the passive and uncreative use of it serves to reproduce the existing. Imagination is more than mere fantasy, it is the ability to rearrange the elements of the world in novel and ingenious ways. Transcending the world not by denying it, but by re-interpreting it. this is why Appadurai is quite right in observing, that the escape of the imagination from the realm of arts to everyday life is quite significant.

As Bayart shows, however, there is no telling if imagination is used in ways which encourage critical engagement with what Bayart calls merchandise. A lot of the work of the imagination is about keeping the Global Subject coherent in a complex world. Maybe we could say, that as the traditional means of maintaining as sense of self, such as culture and tradition, come under pressure, imagination is employed in order to fill this gap. In a way, the imagination works for the social. However, maybe we could argue with Heidegger, that even if the imagination employed in order to maintain just one pattern of order – the social -, its existence will be known and that may, in th eend, be good for employing imagination in power as well.

Redefining ourselves in the European crises

Chart Syrian RefugessMiraculously, only now, in 2015, have the millions of people leaving their homes South and East of Europe found their way across the European borders. One might also say fought, as nothing about those trips seems to be easy. These people have made a reality what the artist activists of the Centre for Political Beauty prophetically enacted as the First Fall of the European Wall only a year ago. In an unceasing trickle Syrians, Africans, people from the Balkan countries and many others emerge from the many holes in that European wall. The European fortress must always have had those holes. But only now does the pressure outside of that comfortable refuge we call Europe start to push people through them. These refugees (for lack of a better word) arrive in a Europe fundamentally torn between its own perceived needs and conflicts, a fear of the other and the distinct feeling that neither goes well with the image we would like to keep of ourselves. People arrive and they are welcomed, fed, made to wait, left alone, registered, celebrated, hated, put up in good/unsuitable/no housing, kept from moving on, made to move on, kept waiting, processed – in any and no particular order, usually more than once. Things are happening much to fast for much political strategy to be behind this. It’s everybody following their guts in a Europe not prepared for that kind of situation. And apparently everybody is pretty confused – hence the confused reaction.
Everything about this “refugee crisis” is complicated: the sheer numbers, the speed, the logistics, the priorities, the politics, the long-term implications. Unfortunately, everything about Europe was pretty complicated before. Remember the almost forgotten Greek debt crisis? Unlike the – also starving and suffering Greeks, Syrian families do not stay in Greece or Italy or Hungary but go on and on, as far away from the cause of their pain as seemed possible. These crises share many features. Resolving them requires funds, cooperation and the courage to ask and answer difficult questions. In other words,their resolution needs everyone to be ready to share, talk to people that may or not be easy to talk to, give up on many little things they would like to insist upon (like “proper” papers and procedures for everything), think beyond their own immediate needs, find creative solutions and commit to a commonly shared goal yet to be determined. I am only naming the basic requirements here….

2015 on a European Motorway

2015 on a European Motorway

Look at the immediate challenges faced in light of continuous flows of people from the Middle East (a mess we are by no means innocent in). Closing borders even for a brief time seems wrong but so does having people walk across the borders along motorways, strand in small towns and sleep on the floor in huge. Closing the borders between European neighbours feels like a step back into a time, we all thought behind us. Transporting thousands of people by train and bus is all nice and well but the logistics of moving so many people are incredibly difficult to manage, especially if we just dump them at the next border. There is a reason that kind of thing is usually only done with months of planning ahead – not hours. And when people arrive housing, food and clothing don’t materialize simply in the right places. Needs and distribution need to be matched and it is not even possible to say who is responsible (No, it is not enough to say the state…). By an unexpected show of collective maturity (or divine intervention) these immediate tasks have been solved incredibly well. People volunteer, share and cooperate in unprecedented ways. Thousands around the Europe go out of their way to make the best of a challenging situation. It is a miracle! Yet, the whole system completely fails: Noone is ready, many people are left without help at all and if anyone has any idea where to go from here, they are hiding it pretty well. It is desaster!
Those warning, that we cannot keep on taking on more refugees have a point – the long term challenges are immense and I am far from convinced that we will master them. But the people reminding us of our moral duty not to let people die at our borders if there is any way we can prevent it couldn’t be more right. There is so many right things, that it is impossible to decide what is the right thing to do. I have reconciled myself to the fact that we will have to muddle through this crisis just as Europe muddled through the last (Remember? Back when we Europeans thought a little Greek debt was a problem to fall apart over…). We will fail many times over, fail us and fail those seeking refuge. Yet, muddling through and failing has brought the European Union so far, maybe it will get us further still? Aren’t all  these question in the end administrative and can best be answered by people who have lots of numbers at hand, who can systematically optimize the outcome employing a healthy combination of fair rules and good judgement?
Administrating the problem is not exactly straight forward, though. Limiting asylum appers as the one way in which we can gain back control in an uncontrollable situation. In light of the immediate challenges which so vividly illustrate the impossibility of the tasks ahead, many conservative voices see this as a way out. Isn’t Afghanistan mostly safe these days? Liberal voices on the other hand refuse to consider the gravity of the changes we are about to face with hundreds of thousands of people coming to live with us for a while – or forever. They consider the practical problems because these problems seem so, well, practical, solvable if just we find the right procedures and muster the necessary resources. Critics of this perspective are right in saying that this is essentially driven by the fear to face the severity of the problems to be solved. Both perspectives go hand in hand and can, indeed and quite surprisingly, be held by one person at the same time. These perspectives are little more than coping mechanisms. But not for coping with the refugee crisis. We turn in circles around these problems in order to avoid the really tough questions. What kind of Europe do we want to be? Do we dare to fall back into nationalistic patterns or leap for something else? Are we ready to do what it takes to live up to our ideals and dreams? And most importantly, are we ready to take the risk of debating these questions even if one possible outcome is that the whole European project falls apart?
All too often we are too scared to discuss the underlying issues because they relate to our innermost beliefs, our European idea. We are mostly happy with this “European Idea” being a generally undefined Something. Indeed, we would not really know what to do if we became explicitly aware of any fundamental disagreements – about who we want to be as Europeans, about what the “European idea” means and what we are ready to do for it. Many would argue such general things have nothing to do with the crises at hand. Answering these questions is not a solution to the refugees’ situation. It may not even help in making the right choices between different policy options. Yet, when I look closer at the different suggestions voiced in the debate around the refugees coming to Europe over the last weeks, I see how it is those questions on what we think Europe should be – remaining not merely unanswered but mostly not even raised – fuelling disagreements. The debate between proponents of limiting rights to asylum more strictly and those wanting to find the most liberal solution only superficially concerns numbers, logistical problems and the limits of our capacity. It is rather an expression of a fundamental uncertainty about solidarity in Europe and where we want the European project to go. Sceptics are driven by fear of the unknown and the sheer unpredictability of what will come out of this. Putting up the founding ideas of any society, those ideas that form the basis of all administrative bickering is tricky business. Smart political theorists advice against it. But barring a belief in political authority based on tradition, money or God, engaging with those fundamental questions is the strategy of choice. Maybe, this latest crisis pushes us over the edge and forces the issue into public consciousness. Maybe we take babysteps by creating an empirical reality of welcoming and sharing which will reassure us of our ability to indeed live up to ideals of solidarity and a fair and open society. Maybe we exchange bold opinions and argue fiercely. Either way, what we do now matters, we are redefining who we are and who we will be with every little thing we say and do. We need to be bold and brave and aware of the significance of these times.

An instance of…. #1

Some students from Münster, Germany, took the Winner song of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest (written by the American Julie Frost and John Gordorn from Denmark and sung by just-out-of-high-school-student Lena Meyer-Landrut from Hannover, Germany), wrote a new German text and turned it into a fan song and video for the German team at the Fifa World Cup in South Africa. Weiterlesen